Some thoughts on church numbers
Why do we allow ourselves to be dazzled and awestruck by numerical success - and discouraged by lack of it? By Colin Sedgwick
It must have been the best part of 40 years ago, but I remember it well. I was a very young minister, and I was sitting in a ministers’ fellowship. We were a mixed bunch - Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Salvation Army, Pentecostals. We always tried to be inclusive and welcoming, so we were pleased on this occasion to have a new minister among us.
He had, we all felt, a tough job ahead; his church had been very small and struggling for many years. Geographically it was rather out on a limb, and humanly speaking the chances of growth seemed limited. But, don’t worry, that didn’t deter him! Oh no!
In our sharing time - we used to take turns to mention topics for praise or prayer - he was decidedly upbeat. After saying a bit about his first impressions of his church, he declared very boldly: “But we are praying to become the biggest church in this town!”
I think we all felt a little embarrassed: ten out of ten for faith, of course; but I think that to some who had been toiling away faithfully for many years in the town it seemed, well, rather inappropriate, even slightly vulgar. But even if perhaps we wondered deep down if he had made something of a fool of himself, we of course did the Christian thing, murmured supportively, and moved on.
Well, that minister disappeared within a year. And he left behind a church which was, if anything, weaker than when he had arrived. Without meaning to be unkind, it was hard to resist the feeling that he was (to use an expression I picked up visiting friends in Texas) “all hat and no cattle”.
Two thoughts struck me about that sorry episode.
First, why would a minister, however fired up for God, choose to pray that his church would become the biggest in the town? Why not, er, the most loving church? the most Spirit-filled? the most Christ-centred? the most prayerful? Shouldn’t these be our priorities? It really seemed a most revealing remark, making painfully clear exactly what made him tick. It suggested a shallow and fundamentally “worldly” mentality: that size is the supreme mark of “success” in church life. Big is beautiful. Size is God’s reward for service.
Sadly, that mentality often creeps into the church in general. I have noticed that Christian people - and not only the ministers - tend to exaggerate the numbers attending their churches. The very simple scriptural word from Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 - “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” - seems to be quietly ignored. But it means exactly what it says, no quibbling. We foolishly allow ourselves to be dazzled and awestruck by numerical success - and discouraged by lack of it.
Second, this experience sent me back to those famous seven letters to the churches (Revelation 2-3). Jesus here usually has something complimentary to say to his people; but, sadly, this is often followed by a hefty “but” or “nevertheless” and some scathing criticism.
But - and this is the point - isn’t it interesting that the only two churches which come in for no criticism at all are Smyrna (2:8-11) and Philadelphia (3:7-13), both of which, it would seem, are quite small and struggling? Smyrna is suffering “afflictions and poverty”, Philadelphia “has little strength”. It seems that these churches, probably quite small in number, were the ones closest to Jesus’ heart.
Church growth is a mysterious thing. One church, under faithful ministry and with beautiful Christian people, grows year on year. Another, under equally faithful ministry and with equally beautiful Christian people, struggles to keep its head above water. Why? Sometimes there are reasons - sociological, geographical - that we can speculate on. But at the end of the day, we just don’t know. Only God knows.
Do you belong to a large church? Well, God bless you! I’m not saying it’s bad to grow - of course not! This world needs to see growing, thriving churches - and how. But do remain humble, please, and remember those words of Paul.
Do you belong to a small church? God bless you too! - as long, of course, as you are seeking to build your church by God’s word and are open to God’s Spirit. Don’t be discouraged! God’s eyes see things very differently from ours. The world may despise you; some silly fellow-Christians may even look down on you. But you are precious in God’s sight. And never doubt that he can use you.
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in north-west London, with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com